Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 Derrick de Kerckhove 1 Jan 1994

Private networks in Public Mind

One difference between East and West Berlin is that in the east, the walls are silent. East Berlin is a city frozen in time before advertising, now beginning to thaw. The other side looks like year round Christmas, with electrical and cognitive energy confusing the newcomers' quest for bearings. When photography and typography turned the walls of cities into billboards, cognitive timemarks were added to the spatial landmarks. Architecture slows time down, advertising accelerates it.


Private Networks in Public Minds -

Advertising developed in relation to speed. It may be as old as ancient Greece, but it didn't take of before television - and it may die along with it. There was a time when there was nothing to sell, because nothing was moving except armies at the borders. Civil life changed only in the mind of writers. It would take centuries for revolutions to unfold. When mechanisation took command, the time delay between stimulus and response of revolutions never ceased to get shorter. The industrial revolution required an industrialised cognition. The speed of production translated into the spread of cognition.

Industrial cognition is a complex affair with layerings of media and speeds. Experiments have shown that if you see 60 stills in one minute, at a rate of one per second, you will recall at most five or six of them (unless you are a prodigy, as, for example, Alexander Luria's or Oliver Sachs' subjects who can memorise complex sequences even without paying attention). However, if, in the following minute, you are shown 90 still, 30 of which were already in the previous showing, you will be able to point out those which had been shown before. Even a week later, you will still remember most if not all of the images you have been shown before. Advertisers are quick to point out to their 'trigger' effect of recall. Those images are stored somehow, somewhere, perhaps like sediments. They connect among themselves if they are contextualised. In advertising, they become the content of a collective cognition. a certain kind of transparency, founded on mutual referencing from one cultural icon to another creates a mental landscape that everybody more or less agrees upon.

Collective Memory

If you accelerate the cut-and-paste effect of billboard advertising, you get something like slow scan television. although it was developed and even used experimentally during the late twenties, television wasn't really found necessary before the post-war society in the 'free world' had been accelerated by the wartime industrial production and the consequent need to float the growth of domestic production. tv changed the world faster and better than both world wars. It is still misunderstood and much maligned by well meaning moralists. It has become an easy target for accusations of debasing people's mind, narrowing their attention span, promoting a vulgar consumer mentality and, of course, inciting our standard supply of psychopaths to domestic and street violence. Adbusters Quarterly, by calling itself the 'Journal of the Mental Environment', indicts the power of advertising to promote cultural biases among millions. It supports 'culture jamming', tactics to break up cultural stock responses. Its primary target is tv. The spread of television was, of course, supported by advertising needs, but its principal effect has been to accelerate collective cognition to almost real-time processing. Like the invention of the alphabet, television has been a major stage in the development of mens planetaria.

Camille Paglia's answer to Neil Postman's accusation that tv is without memory, moving from one instant to the next without recall or continuity, is that tv is collective memory itself, churning the expanded present of social cognition with runs, reruns and repetition. Because it obliges its watchers to focus on the screen, tv, much more than radio, enlists people in synchronous and culturally synergetic information-processing. By turning on the set and choosing a channel, you agree to share the content of your cognitive processing with millions or thousands of other people at the same time. You instantly ride on a corporate subjectivity. This is what Bill Myers implies by calling tv, the 'public mind'. Ads and reruns are 'live', but at a slower speed than direct television. No one says that collectives have to think at the same speed as individuals, and everyone knows that some people think faster than others.

Content wise, aesthetic criticism not withstanding, the business of television has always been to provide the subject matter and the protocols of a unified, albeit low-grade consciousness. At the level of its sociocultural impact, all tv, no matter when, where and what, whether commercial or public, educational or evangelical, is basically the same. Vying for the same advertising accounts, addressing a similar content to a willing audience, big commercial networks have provided common and regularly updated references for a common cultural identity. Ads for Ford, Coca Cola, Philip Morris and detergents were pegged as symbols that constitute a culture based on automobiles, entertainment, news and domestic products. tv created the first and only real 'mass' culture, beaming in from the screen a clone model of behaviour to a passive consumer. American television defined the limits of 'mass morality' not only for its own viewers but also for a large part of the world with tv exports. Like public transportation, broadcasting is predictable and dull. Both types of traffic handling serve a purpose however. They define areas, provide bearings and identify nodes based on the frequency of activity. They give an approximate global shape to very complex heterogeneous environments. Culture critics are prone to suggest that television advertising imposes the patterns of mind traffic, and that, left to their own devices, prosumers and hackers would create their own alternative networks with completely different contents and priorities. The success of Internet certainly bears this out. But Internet works out of time and out of place while broadcasting and public transportation are both space-bound and time-sensitive.

Culture critics and other adbusters have been so busy pointing out the obvious, namely that tv ethics are vulgar and self-serving, that they have failed to see the much larger picture, that tv has had the greatest peacetime unifying power ever known to any culture. People behaved as consumers of mass marketing because they intuitively accepted to define themselves as individual units of a single social and cognitive environment. Their trust and fidelity to brands distributed nation-wide and the world over provided them with a sense of security and belonging.

Beyond Advertising

However, by the time Paglia and Postman had it out in Harper's (1992), and even when Myers broadcasted the four segments of tv, the Public Mind (1989) the culture of tv had already come and been long gone. Even Adbusters will have to come soon to the realisation that the action is not in the television aura anymore. tv culture was over in the late seventies, when computers began to erode mass indoctrination by providing opportunities to talk back to the screen and allowing point-to-point interaction over standard telephone networks. With telecomputers and multimedia, with the distribution of camcorders, videotechnologies are aspiring to the condition of the telephone, not an environment well suited to advertising. Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, predicting a radical decentralisation of media access, puts himself in the driver's seat:// Once Al Gore gets the fiber optics highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress over the Net. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I'm interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show that address my interests(...) How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that? ('The Mediasaurus', Wired, Sept./Oct. 1993, p. 58). George Gilder, in Life after Television, predicts the demise of broadcasters in a near future with the intelligence at the terminals and not in the distributors operating consoles, and Mark Starowicz describes the irreversible fragmentation of customised tv narrowcasting in what he calls The Gutenberg Revenge of Television.//

Will advertising survive the change? Perhaps it will find a niche in the recesses of databases. Companies planning to support multimedia are already talking about placing a company logo on screens that show information provided by their sponsorship. According to Kono Matsu, Ads, infomercials and product placements will be seamlessly crafted into the whole system. Broadcasters will be able to sell niche audiences to advertisers; military enthusiasts, fly fishermen, romance buffs, you name it. Mass marketing will grow increasingly personalised (Adbusters, Summer 1993). Advertising served a purpose at a time when the psychological growth of a troubled planet required one-way communications supported by many standardised gadgets in a tentatively democratic polity. Advertising then was not simply the way to sell more goods, goods were the herringbone thrown to the dogs in order to allow the unimpeded creation of meaning. But consuming as meaning is not indispensable anymore. Stepping up the tempo of cognitive participation of individuals in the social body, computers helped the culture to graduate from mass to speed. From pc to fax machines, the world accelerated cognitively as never before. Our relationships to the screen is rapidly shifting from merely 'frontal' to 'interactive'. This means that we are indeed going to negotiate meaning ourselves without the need to resort to much advertising. The next step, with Virtual Reality and mental interface multimedia, may be immersive, bringing on yet another cultural, cognitive and – anecdotally – marketing revolution.